Comparative Politics

Preview of Honduran Elections

Nov 28 '09

Gregory Weeks offers the following preview of what promises to be a highly contentious election in Honduras:

Tomorrow’s presidential election in Honduras is notable more for who is not president than who will become president. Precisely why that is the case is not easy to summarize quickly.

On June 28, President José Manuel “Mel” Zelaya was arrested by the military, then forcibly and illegally exiled. The Supreme Court had ordered that arrest (ironically claiming he was a flight risk) but his removal from office was justified ex post facto and so remains a central bone of contention. The charge was that he was conducting a non-binding referendum illegally—those who read Spanish can see all the legal documents here.

Although it is widely reported that the referendum would have allowed Zelaya to run again, in fact it asked whether Hondurans were in favor of convoking a constitutional commission, without mentioning presidential terms or re-election. Not only is re-election prohibited, but it is illegal even to reform the article of the constitution prohibiting it.

Roberto Micheletti, who had been president of Congress (from the same Liberal Party as Zelaya), announced he had assumed the presidency. The Obama administration argued that Zelaya’s removal was a coup, though not a “military coup,” which would have automatically carried sanctions. The coup was broadly denounced, both in Latin America and globally. Over the following months, negotiations foundered and stalled. Micheletti and other coup supporters made clear their belief that the presidential election would resolve the crisis, and lobbied the U.S. Congress and State Department very hard to make that point.

Ultimately Zelaya—who had been conducting an unsuccessful hemispheric tour intended to pressure Micheletti—sought to force new negotiations by secretly making his way back into the country, where he found refuge in the Brazilian embassy. He will watch the elections unfold from there.

The most recent negotiations had put the decision about whether Zelaya should be reinstated in the hands of Congress, but that body formally announced that it would not make a decision before the election. Further, the Supreme Court ruled earlier this week that Zelaya cannot be reinstated unless he faces the charges pending against him.

Election day will be tense, to put it mildly. Zelaya and his supporters have called for a boycott, and there have been constant protests against the Micheletti regime. Those protests have often been met with force, even while opposition media has been harassed and periodically shut down. The military has also been reminding Hondurans that abstention is a punishable offense.

So who is running in this election? The front runner is Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo from the National Party, who in a recent poll had a 16 point lead over Elvin Santos from the Liberal Party. These two parties have dominated Honduran politics for over a century. Both candidates would represent a return to the more stable and traditional oligarchic style of governing that Zelaya had upset.

There are also three candidates from small parties, none of whom are polling over three percent: Felicito Avila (Christian Democrat), Bernard Martínez (Innovation and Unity Party), and César Ham (Democratic Unification). Another candidate, Carlos Reyes (independent), pulled out because he declared the election to be illegitimate.

Finally, there are elections for all 128 seats in the unicameral National Congress, elected by open-list proportional representation. As in the past, there is little doubt that the National and Liberal parties will continue to win the lion’s share of seats, with a scattering going to other parties (e.g. there were 11 such seats in 2005 and 12 in 2001). It is also worth noting that all 298 mayors in Honduras are up to election, and about 60 have proclaimed themselves in resistance to the Micheletti government.

Whoever wins the presidency will face an unenviable situation. The country will remain polarized, many countries will not recognize the outcome, and the question of Zelaya’s future is unanswered. Both supporters of the coup and the Obama administration appear to believe that merely holding the election will put the crisis behind them.

That conclusion seems doubtful, but tomorrow will provide the first clues.